Although a number of British motor cars can be counted among the ‘greats’ of the 20th century, Great Britain was not actually a motoring pioneer. The world’s first cars were built in Germany, where Nicolaus Otto designed the first practical petrol-driven engine, and where Benz and Daimler made the first practical ‘horseless carriages’. It was in France, however, that a fledgling motor industry was first founded. Panhard & Levassor and Peugeot were soon joined by De Dion Bouton, after which expansion was swift. Both France and Germany were well ahead of Britain, and although the Americans started late, they soon overwhelmed everyone with their low-cost/mass-production expertise.
Although steam-driven monstrosities had been tried on British roads in the early part of the nineteenth century, horse-drawn machinery (particularly the personal carriage, and the stagecoach) was not easy to dislodge. Petrol-driven cars were not really established until the late 1890s. This was not through lack of interest from forward-looking individuals, but because of official legal obstruction to such machinery, which were classified as ‘light locomotives’ according to legislation passed in 1865 and 1878. At that point, all such vehicles were limited to speeds of two mph in towns, and to four mph in the countryside, and had to be attended by three persons. Originally, an attendant walking ahead of the ‘locomotive’ was obliged to carry a red flag as a warning to nervous horse owners, but this requirement was dropped in 1878.
Society was slow to embrace the technological advances heralded by the motor car, partly because the vested interest of much of the Establishment rested either in railway travel or in the huge industry surrounding horse-drawn transport – farriers, ostlers, breeders, traders and carriage makers. It was only after spirited lobbying and ridicule from the first few motorists who had imported cars from Germany or France, that the ‘Locomotives on Highways’, or ‘Emancipation Act’ came into force in 1896, which freed vehicles under 1.5 tons (1,524 kg) of all restrictions, and permitted them to travel at speeds up to a sensational 12 mph. The original London-Brighton run of November 1896 was held to celebrate this great achievement.
That speed limit, incidentally, would rise to 20 mph in 1903 (a speed which few cars could then achieve, never mind exceed). The speed limit was not changed, however, until 1930, by which time it was being widely ignored, in spite of ruthless policing (by speed trap) from local police forces.
While European cars dominated the market of the 1890s, one or two British inventors had worked to produce prototypes. Bremer’s four-wheeler of 1894 was an unconvincing pram-like affair which never achieved reliability (or even went on sale), while the Knight (originally a three-wheeler) and the Petter of 1895 were more practical.
By 1896 in Birmingham the Lanchester brothers and Herbert Austin (for Wolseley) had both built commendably advanced prototypes, while Walter Arnold had built a dozen or so Benz machines, but Britain’s first series- production motor car was the Daimler, which went on sale later in that year. Assembled at a converted cotton mill in Coventry, in a business run by company promoter Harry Lawson (who later went to jail for a variety of financial frauds), this was a surprisingly good car to emerge from a very shadily-financed concern. At first no more than an accurate license-built copy of the latest German Daimler models, this car gradually evolved, and from the early 1900s would not only be independent, but would have an altogether more respectable background.
Over the next few years there was a rush to mechanise Great Britain, first with motor cycles, then tricycles, and eventually with four-wheeler cars. Attend any old-machine event today, and you will see Rover and Singer cycles, Triumph motor cycles and Lagonda tricars, all of which confirm these trends.
By the mid-1900s British cars were not yet available in abundance, but they had become surprisingly reliable. Daimler and Lanchester had been joined by Rolls-Royce, Napier, Riley, Rover, Humber, Sunbeam and other more ephemeral makes, though at this stage all cars were essentially hand-built, hand-crafted, and expensive. In the early years of the century, cars in Britain were invariably owned by rich men with large houses or country estates; they garaged their new automobiles in motor houses once used to stable the horses and their carriages, and employed driver/mechanics (chauffeurs) to drive them around. Price was considered less important than style, presence and dependability – and since almost every car was faster than a trotting horse, a lack of performance was not critical at first. This not only explains why it took years for cheap and simple cars to be developed, but also why there was a sudden plethora of magnificent marques from which to choose. In the early years of the century Napier led, Daimler struggled valiantly to follow, and Rolls-Royce almost immediately joined in.
The first Napiers, from a long-established London company, were big, fast, impressive, and soon had an enviable motor racing reputation. Through their principal engineer/manager, S.F. Edge, they were always placed at the cutting edge of publicity, especially when they became the first to use a six-cylinder engine.
Daimler, unwilling to join such a competitive battle for motor racing supremacy, went for high style and elegant furnishings, along with high-tech engineering instead, and introduced a sophisticated series of double sleeve-valved engines from 1909. By this time they had also secured royal patronage, and therefore became the make of car which typified the gentry who bought them. Who needed advertising, when the list of owners included royal highnesses, dukes, earls and their descendants?
This, therefore, is the right moment to introduce Rolls-Royce, a company which started quietly in a back street of Manchester, but blossomed in 1906 after the introduction of the immortal 40/50 hp Silver Ghost, and shortly moved to a new factory in Derby. With this single model (there would be no other until the early 1920s), Henry Royce established a legend, and although it took decades for British royalty to take Rolls-Royce to their hearts, by 1914 they were recognised as the ‘Best Cars in the World’ – a phrase which the company itself was always happy to use in its promotional material.
By 1910, in fact, the British motor industry was well established, for not only had Lanchester and Rover started building sturdy, middle class machinery, but they had been joined by marques like Sunbeam of Wolverhampton (the noted engineer Louis Coatalen joined them from Hillman in 1909), and Talbot, which was already building cars in London’s North Kensington. Cars were also being built north of the Border, in Scotland: by Argyll (whose new factory at Alexandria, near Loch Lomond, was a positive palace by previous standards) and Arrol-Johnston, which built cars in Paisley from 1906, but then moved, with great enterprise, to Dumfries in 1913.
Production of British cars built up steadily at this time, but it was clear to every tycoon that prices would have to be driven down considerably before Britain’s burgeoning middle classes could join in the fun. One type of car which was still virtually unknown, not only here but in Europe, was the sports car. Cynics might say that because of their mechanical fragility and their character, every early car was a sports car, but this ignores the fact that sports cars should have two seats, open-top styling, and sparkling performance. Vauxhall’s very rare ‘Prince Henry’, and one or two highly-priced Napiers qualified, but there would be none in numbers until the 1920s
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None of Britain’s ‘big six’ – the car makers whose cars flooded our roads from the 1930s to the 1960s – were among the pioneers, though once established, all of them soon took up dominant positions. Standard of Coventry was set up first in 1903 with a modest single-cylinder-engined machine, but would not become major producers until the 1920s.
Vauxhall, originally at Lambeth, in London, was founded in the same year, and made 76 cars in 1904, but made no real progress until the business relocated to Luton in 1905. Only a few years later, under a charismatic new chief engineer, L.H. Pomeroy (Senior), their sports cars and racing cars were among the best: true fame and serious production would come in the 1920s, not only because of the excellence of the 30/98 sports car, but because of Vauxhall’s take-over by General Motors of the USA.
Austin, too, started modestly in 1906, though their founder, Herbert Austin, was already noted for his design work at Wolseley. Solidly established by 1914, huge expansion followed in the 1920s.
Hillman was set up in Coventry by William Hillman in 1907, but although this company built solid, middle class cars until the 1920s, it was not until they were forced into a merger with their next-door neighbour Humber in 1928 (both later being subsumed into the Rootes Group) that the size of the company began to matter.
The two biggest hitters of all – Ford and Morris – did not even get started in England until just before the First World War. Ford, of course, was an American firm, which had been in business since the end of the previous century, but true quantity production did not begin until the now-legendary Model T was announced in 1908. Henry Ford was finally persuaded to set up an assembly operation, for Model Ts, at a factory in Trafford Park, Manchester. As expected, he did nothing by halves, and this facility soon out-shone anything so far achieved by British nationals.
Although the Model T was incredibly cheap, and sold fast in the UK, its potential was always hampered by the annual car license fee exacted on British cars, which favoured small-engined cars with tiny piston area: the 2.9-litre Model T had neither, and suffered. Even so, until the Bullnose Morris hit the market in numbers, the T was Britain’s best-selling car.
Morris, which started production in 1913, was the last of the ‘big six’ to start work, and made little impact in this period. William Morris began in tiny premises with what is called an ‘assembled car’ (where the parent factory built almost nothing of its own, but merely screwed together components supplied by outside specialists), and very few facilities. Although Morris became Britain’s best-selling car-maker in the mid 1920s, only 1,300 Morrises were produced in 1913, all of them Bullnose Oxfords, and the company’s original market share was a mere 3.8 per cent.
By 1914, when the motor car had still only been legally approved for use on British roads for 18 years, annual production had risen to at least 34,000 cars. Until the late 1900s, horses and their carriages still outnumbered cars on British roads (particularly outside major towns and cities), but after that the motor car took precedence. The last pre-war British Motor Show was held at London’s Olympia in 1913, when no fewer than 211 makes (from ten countries) were listed in The Autocar’s Buyers’ Guide. By the time the outbreak of war put paid to private car production in 1914, more than 130,000 cars (almost all British) were already on the roads, which themselves had changed immeasurably in just two decades.
But if such figures sounded impressive, what followed in the 1920s and 1930s would dwarf them all. At the turn of the century, motoring had been strictly for the rich, and by 1914 it was for the merely ‘well-to-do’. By 1930 ‘motoring for the masses’ would have arrived.